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The 2017 Seattle Mariners: Reasons for optimism, reasons for pessimism

Let’s talk about our feelings.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

[Ed. note: This year, in lieu of the “If it all goes wrong/if it all goes right” posts, we will instead be featuring a few of our writers meditating on their expectations for the 2017 season. We’ll also do a more nitty-gritty predictions post later on. Many thanks to Andrew for being willing to go first.]

Deciding how to feel about the 2017 Seattle Mariners is a balancing act between tempering the effervescent optimism of spring and struggling to avoid sinking into a gloomy mire fueled by 15 consecutive years of missing out on post-season ball. It can be damned hard to find a reasonable balance between these extremes. On the one hand, there are so many reasons to be excited (so many new faces! outfield defense! everything about Nelson Cruz’s eyebrows!)... but then, if you look closely, there are an equal number of potentially perilous pitfalls, just waiting to send you crashing down onto the jagged spikes of bitter disappointment.

I know so many people who are SO hyped about the Mariners in 2017. This will be the year they finally end their playoff drought! James Paxton is gonna contend for the Cy Young! Mitch Haniger will suddenly morph into a slightly less good version of Mike Trout! Yahoooo! Alternatively, I also know quite a few grumbly Guses and Gusettes who are convinced that the Seattle Mariners will never play in the playoffs again. Any/all hope is futile. That Eeyore fellow has quite the reasonable worldview, if you stop and think about it.

The ambivalence/dissonance a person experiences when diving into Mariners Twitter these days can be quite a shock to one’s system. To get a better handle on why these feelings vary so wildly, and to try and figure out exactly how I feel about all of this, I’ve broken down some of the more polarizing aspects of the 2017 Seattle Mariners.

The starting pitching

  • Reasons for optimism: Mr. James Paxton, owner of the fourth best fWAR/IP among starters with 120+ IP in 2016. A lot of people think Pax is on the verge of a 5-win season, and there’s certainly a lot to get excited about (that fastball paired with that cutter paired with that curveball is *kisses fingers*). Add this to the fact that Felix Hernandez and Drew Smyly have both looked sharp in recent WBC/ST starts and you’ve maybe got something cookin’. If Felix rebounds this year and Smyly stops giving up a bunch of home runs, this rotation could look pretty slick through the first four starters.
  • Reasons for pessimism: Of course, we were saying a lot of the same things about Seattle’s starting five a year ago. Felix was going to come back with a vengeance from a fairly lackluster 2015. New-guys Wade Miley and Nate Karns could throw some nasty pitches and each had exhibited flashes of dominance throughout their careers. Expectations were high! Unfortunately, sometimes players don’t rebound and new acquisitions can struggle mightily. Also, lest you’ve forgotten, Jerry Dipoto traded for Yovani Gallardo and his $11M guaranteed contract on purpose; I don’t know (m)any people who are looking forward to watching his outings. (A note added at the last minute: Drew Smyly has a soggy arm and might be hurt? What? No, no, no.)

This is probably the thing that worries me the most about this team. After Paxton (who I still have ~irrational injury concerns about), my level of confidence re: any of the other starting pitchers is meager at best. This might not be fair, but it’s where I’m at.

Andrew’s feelings: An ALARMING amount of pessimism.

The outfield

  • Get pumped: Will any balls hit in the air against the M’s manage to drop for a base hit into that blend of four types of Kentucky bluegrass and two kinds of perennial rye grass that carpets the outfield of Safeco Field? Maaaaybe. But probably not very many. (This defense is going to be so fun to watch.)
  • Get dumped: But will they hit enough to make the defensive upgrade worth it? FanGraphs currently projects the M’s outfield to combine for a wRC+ of 87. That would’ve rated as the second worst among MLB outfields in 2016, coming in only above the Phillies. A lot of Mariners fans think this project is too low, but is there a solid basis for this optimism? Haniger’s offensive numbers have looked good in ST and in the minors, but recent M’s outfielders (e.g., Stefen Romero) have shown that this does not always translate to big-league success. Add in the fact that Dyson and Martin have combined for a wRC+ of 84 over the least three seasons, and that aforementioned projection doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable.

I think this group of players will be very good at catching/throwing baseballs but not so great at hitting them. It seems likely that they’ll end up being a slight upgrade over least year’s outfield. The thing that worries me the most is that I can’t shake the feeling that there could be at least one scary collision out there as multiple outfielders converge on a fly ball. Please be safe, fellas.

Andrew’s feelings: Mixed, but mostly positive.

Jean Segura

  • Reasons to yay: Almost everything about the 2016 season. Segura’s re-tooled approach, which has shown a lot more pop, could be the real deal. He’s also fast! And is capable of playing some pretty nifty infield defense. He could end up being an incredibly swoon-worthy player.
  • Reasons to nay: Everything about 2014 and 2015. Even with Segura’s recent success, it’s hard to completely discount this two-year period (1141 PA) where he posted a wRC+ of 65 and a total fWAR of 0.3. Those are numbers that make Yuniesky Betancourt look downright competent.

I admit that when this trade first happened I was equal parts confused, alarmed, and excited. Segura’s numbers prior to 2016 were very bad! Taijuan Walker was sometimes very good! However, after reading a bit more about the changes Segura made in 2016, I’ve come to feel pretty good about the Mariners shortstop position in 2017.

Andrew’s feelings: A healthy amount of optimism.

First base

  • No, don’t stop!: Although Danny Valencia was one of the biggest defensive liabilities in all of baseball in 2016, the majority of his playing time was at third base. A move to first could hide these defensive shortcomings and allow his bat to shine (a bat that has posted a very shiny wRC+ of 147 vs. lefties since 2013). On the other side of this potential platoon is Daniel Vogelbach, who looked darn good against Triple-A pitching in 2016. If Voggie masters the footwork required to play first base and harnesses his power+OBP potential, him and Valencia would represent quite the tandem at first.
  • No. Don’t. Stop.: Valencia has only started 22 games at 1B in his MLB career. Even if he’s not a disaster in the field this year, the vast majority of his value will be tied to his bat. Danny does rake against LHP, but he’s the short-side of the platoon, which means that Vogelbach would likely have to carry this position. And he was just sent down to minor league camp, which doesn’t make me feel especially good.

I’ve been burned too often in the recent past by the idea that surely this year the M’s will be able to get decent production out of first base. (For perspective, the M’s have averaged a whopping 0.2 fWAR per season from their first basemen over the last seven years.) As a result, regrettably, I find myself unable to buy in to the idea of a Valencia+Vogelbach platoon.

Andrew’s feelings: Bad. I feel bad about the situation at first base, you guys.

Mike Zunino

  • Champagne for my real friends: Did you see Mike when he was first called up from Triple A at the beginning of July? He was hitting baseballs to the moon! He was also walking more and chasing fewer balls out of the zone. It was great! We’ve said it before, but if Mike could manage to be even close to a league-average hitter, he’d be a 3-win player and a real asset to this team.
  • Real pain for my sham friends: Unfortunately, his hot start in 2016 did not last. Over his last 29 games (101 PA), he hit .146/.248/.270 (good for a wRC+ of 46) with a strikeout rate of 42.6%. This, combined with the tire fire of his 2015 campaign, makes trusting Mike’s on-field performance difficult.

Expanding on an analogy that has been used by the wonderful Meg Rowley, where M’s fans are Charlie Brown and Mike Zunino is Lucy holding a football for us to kick, I am (for whatever reason) still willing to play the role of Charlie Brown. HOWEVER, my run-up to kick the ball isn’t nearly as fast/enthusiastic as it used to be.

Andrew’s feelings: A slight amount of potentially ill-conceived optimism.

The aforementioned positions are five areas where the floor and the ceiling are quite distant from one another. A person could justifiably feel very good or quite leery (or anywhere in between!) about any of those components of the Seattle Mariners in 2017. Overall, I find myself harboring a small flame’s worth of optimism. It glows weakly, wavering violently at the hint of a breeze, but it’d still enough to start a toasty fire if the conditions prove to be favorable (i.e., the M’s don’t fall on their faces in April).

(Note: I opted not to talk about the M’s relief corps because bullpens are notoriously fraught with inconsistency. The Mariners have a lot of potentially fun pieces (<3 you Edwin), each of which could be amazing or amazingly frustrating.)

This brings us to the last thing I’d like to talk about:

The Mariners BIG THREE

These gentlemen are far from polarizing. Everyone agrees that these fellows are Tony the Tiger-level GRRRREAT! In 2016, Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz combined for a wRC+ of 139 and an fWAR of 15.7. Between the three of them, they missed just 12 games and dependably anchored what was one of the very best lineups in allllll of baseball. Those are some amazingly impressive stats. In fact, the Mariners hadn’t had a trio of position players as skilled as these guys since 2003, when Ichiro, Boone, and Cammy were running the show.

So, looking forward, we are faced with the somewhat uncomfortable question of: Can Seager, Cano, and Cruz collectively repeat their 2016 performance in 2017?

Sure they could! Aging curves be damned!

But is this likely? Hmmmmmm.

Think about it like this: In 2017, if Seager, Cano, and Cruz put up ~4.0, ~4.0, and ~2.7 wins, respectively, would you be disappointed? I wouldn’t be surprised if the average M’s fan felt at least a little bit nonplussed if this happened. To be clear, those win values would still be very good, especially when you recall that two of those gentlemen are on the wrong side of 34. Nonetheless, that combined total of ~10.7 WAR would represent a 5-win dropoff compared to last season. That’s a substantial loss, but one that could easily happen to an aging core. (For perspective, the difference between the position players of the 2016 Mariners and the 2016 Reds was about 5 fWAR.)

As another point of reference, it should be noted that the Depth Charts projections on FanGraphs (the ones that a lot of folks appear to be discounting because they have the M’s pegged for just 83 wins in 2017) has Cano, Seager, and Cruz combining for ~10 fWAR.

I understand the excitement that comes with re-tooling your starting rotation/pitching depth and upgrading your outfield defense and replacing Ketel Marte with Jean Segura and buying into Mike Zunino as a complete baseball player for the third time and not having to watch Adam Lind at first base next year... but the majority of those potential gains would be wiped out if the M’s big boppers end up having good years instead of great years in 2017.

Unless something crazy-cool happens (e.g., at least two of Zunino, Haniger, or Paxton having insane breakout seasons), Seattle needs Cano, Seager, and Cruz to all have amazing years if they want to have a good shot at the playoffs. That’s how this roster is currently constructed. (It should be noted that this isn’t a particularly unique problem; borderline-playoff teams routinely lean heavily on their stars.) I just don’t know that this team would be able to weather the storm if Seager, Cano, or Cruz ends up missing substantial playing time/struggling in 2017. And that thought is a little bit scary, which is why I’m not quite as optimistic about this team as I’d like to be.

I apologize if it comes across like I’m spouting an inordinate amount of doom about this. I don’t mean to. Nelson Cruz has already demonstrated that he knows how to circumvent the ravages of aging; it takes a brutal combination of a parasite, acid reflux, and a hernia to even begin slowing down Robinson Cano; and Kyle Seager is one of the most resilient and hardest-working players in all of baseball. The chance that these guys will come close to repeating their 2016 numbers is not so small.

If the Mariners hit the ~85th percentile of their upside in 2017, they could definitely grab something like 90 wins and snag a wild card spot or contend for the AL West. But it seems like that’d take a lot of things going right and very few things going wrong. But what do I know? I’m just some noob on the internet. Sometimes you’re lucky and a bunch of things click at the exact same time (hello, 2001) and you shock the world.

I will close by saying that, despite my relative lack of overall optimism (compared to many of the other writers/readers on this site), I will still cheer for this team with the full capacity of my lungs, root for them with every twitching fiber of my heart, and support them like a pint-sized Atlas. (All while making bad jokes, grumbling when the M’s are dumb/frustrating, and highlighting any laughably good/bad stats that I uncover.) Baseball season is back, friends.

Go Mariners.

Andrew’s overall excitement rating for the 2017 season: Three out of five dancin’ Tom Wilhelmsens.

For the record, I’m picking the M’s to win 85 games in 2017, falling just short of a Wild Card spot. I think that this season could feel a lot like 2014 and 2016; incredibly fun a lot of the time, but with its fair share of frustrations and disappointments. Regardless, this team should provide us with a ton of happy memories that will be well worth savoring.